Philosophy  •  September 2, 2006

What Do We Do with the Privileges We Are Born With?

After graduating from college, I worked for a Japanese corporation here in the US. I hated the idea that I was taking advantage of being Japanese, but it was during the recession of the early 90s, and being able to get any kind of job, especially fresh out of college, was quite fortunate. The only reason why I was able to get that job was because I spoke Japanese. If I were Chinese, I would not have had the access to the same opportunities. I asked myself, “Why do I deserve these opportunities when many immigrants from other countries have to start their lives from the very bottom of this society?”

I am certainly not alone in feeling guilty about taking advantage of our inherited privileges. (Here, I am concerned only with inherited privileges, such as wealth, nationality, talents, intelligence, etc.. Not to be confused with privileges that are consensually entrusted by others, like certain political privileges.) Where does this guilt come from? It comes from our belief that we all should have the same rights, opportunities, and resources. In other words, we believe that we should all start from the same place, so that whatever we achieve in life is rightfully earned.

To every feeling, there is a counter-feeling. If we feel guilty about something, we must be feeling proud of something else. In the case above, it is the feeling that we earned something rightfully. If you do not take advantage of any inherited privileges, you can fairly compare yourself with others and feel good about what you have accomplished. The best scenario is to come from an under-privileged position. We often see on TV, people like Oprah Winfrey, who are proud of their accomplishments in life for this reason. This ideal is especially strong on this “land of opportunities.”

I recently had a discussion on this subject with someone on the Internet. I’ll keep him anonymous, and call him John here. Interestingly, he used the term “salvation” to describe this situation, and he specifically described his use of the term as non-religious. He feels that if there are people who are suffering because of his exploitation or even ignorance of his privileges, he does not feel that he could live a good life. He has to make whatever efforts necessary to make sure that this is not the case. He is trying to save himself from living a bad life, hence the term “salvation”. He explained that this is not coming from a feeling of guilt. However, it would just be a matter of semantics to describe what he would feel, if he didn’t make those efforts. I believe most people would simply use the term “guilt”, since the feeling of guilt is associated with committing sins that one knows one should not commit. He does not see a privilege as something negative; he wants everyone he cares about to have the same privileges. Otherwise he does not feel that he could live a good life.

He is certainly not alone. As a matter of fact, I used to feel the same way. The privilege that I was most concerned about in my 20s was nationality. I was fortunate enough to be born in a wealthy country. Had I born in places like North Korea, Mexico, Iraq, or Afghanistan, my life would have been completely different. To this day, I feel saddened to see a Mexican laborer working at a fancy restaurant as a buss boy. The only difference between the man who is picking up the dirty dishes and the man who is enjoying a fine dinner is where they are happen to be born in. This glaring unfairness is difficult to swallow. But most Americans take that difference for granted, and see their citizenship as something they deserve. In my younger days, I felt that the ideal world would have no borders, as in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” People are free to come and go anywhere. No one nation would have more power than any others. I no longer dream of such a world. Why? It’s not because it is unrealistic or impossible; it’s because such a world is actually undesirable. To see this, you have to imagine harder than John Lennon did.

The degree or the range of differences we perceive between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, fair and unfair, happy and sad, and dark and light, are constantly shifting in time. Many things we consider “inhumane” today would have been considered harmless a few thousand years ago. We watch movies like “The Passion of The Christ” and are shocked by its cruelty, brutality, and mercilessness, but Jesus wasn’t the only person who died that way. In those days, many people were subjected to similar tortures.

Our perceptions adjust the range of any differences to the extremes that we experience ourselves. The range of “humane” and “inhumane” used to be much wider than the range we experience today, but our perceptions do not care about the past. So, we watch Jesus getting tortured in the old-fashion way, we are utterly shocked. If there were televisions when Jesus was alive, it would probably have been aired on the evening news programs and even kids would be allowed to watch it. And, people would have casually dismissed it: “Oh, Jesus, another torture news? Tell me something more urgent.” In this manner, it does not matter how much we reduce the extent of any difference, our perceptions will always adjust to the new extent, and we will continue to be outraged by things that are inhumane, no matter how mild it might become in the future.

The extent of difference does not always get narrower; some are getting wider. For instance, what we consider “pollution” today is something people would not have even imagined a thousand years ago. If Jesus time-traveled and saw River Thames in England today, he would probably assume that we are living in the post-apocalyptic world. But we don’t think anything of it. Many people even enjoy the scenery from the bridges.

Given this nature of human beings, what would happen if we were to achieve the world John Lennon imagined? “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” If we are to define “peace” as what the people of two thousand years ago defined (or imagined), we are in fact living in that world today. There is no need to imagine; it’s here and now. If we are to define “peace” as defined by the people who are living in their own times, Lennon’s dream would never come true. As explained above, our perceptions will always adjust to the new extent of what we consider “conflicting” and “peaceful”.

Let’s get back to the discussion of privilege. If we are to achieve what John (my Internet discussion partner) deems as the ideal world, we would have to even out everything. It would not just be a matter of evening out our wealth, nationalities, and racial differences; we would have to even out absolutely everything. Even if our wealth is evened out, we will adjust to the new extent of our financial differences. Someone who makes a thousand dollar more than the average person would be considered as “filthy rich”. Even if we could succeed in taking everyone’s attention away from our differences in wealth, we will always find ways to compare ourselves to others. And, some people will always be considered unfairly privileged in one form or another. The only way to eliminate any unfairness would be to make everyone absolutely the same. We should all look identical, like clones. We should have the same IQ, talents, and physical strength. We should all be either male or female. We will have to be born at the same time in the same place too. My gut instinct tells me that even if this were possible, we’ll still find differences and some will still be considered more privileged than others.

The pursuit of fairness leads to this kind of untenable ridiculousness. Why is this? It is because we are focused on the wrong problem. The problem is not the unfairness or the differences in our inherited privileges; the problem lies in our tendency to compare ourselves with others and use the results of our comparison to determine (and assume) what we deserve. From the perspective of Mother Nature, we don’t deserve anything. We are lucky if we have anything. We act as though our government was responsible for creating us (bringing us to life). If we assumed that our government was producing babies in their labs, our complaints about unfairness would actually make sense. We believe in the equality of rights, so every baby should be endowed with the same exact inherited privileges and advantages (although if everyone had the same privileges and advantages, no one would have any privileges and advantages). But our government didn’t create us; Mother Nature did. And, Mother Nature never said anything about fairness. So our assumption that we deserve this or that is groundless. We don’t deserve anything. This means that it is pointless to compare ourselves to others for the purpose of determining what inherited privileges and advantages we deserve. That cannot be determined by comparing ourselves to others. No matter what we do, some people will always inherit more privileges than others.

If you were unable to walk, naturally you would wish to be able to walk. But your desire to walk should have nothing to do with the fact that other people are walking. Many of us wish that we could fly, but we don’t need to compare ourselves to others and turn the issue into a matter of fairness or “privilege”, because no human beings can fly. So, this desire is devoid of envy, bitterness, or despair. The desire to walk, or desire to be rich, could also be devoid of these negative feelings. It is perfectly reasonable to desire certain things in life, but this does not mean that you need to compare yourself to others. You might say it is easy for me to say, but the bottom line is that it is your own loss if you are unable to achieve this state of desire without envy. In my early twenties, when I was lonely because of my language and cultural barriers, I recall seeing someone in a wheelchair having a lively conversation with his friends, and I thought to myself, “Even though he can’t walk, at least he can make friends because he can communicate.” Comparing ourselves this way comes natural to us, but it does not lead to anything positive.

My discussion partner, John, claimed that the talent for music or math cannot be considered a privilege that can be exploited to the detriment of others, and therefore that it cannot be compared to inherited wealth. The best example to illustrate the fact that innate talents are no different from innate social privileges, or physical advantages, is the IQ. There is no denying now that IQ is innate. And, if you look at the statistics, there is a very high correlation of IQ to general success and to social power. Those who were born with high IQ will end up holding more power than those who were born with low IQ, even if they all made the same amount of efforts in life. In individual cases, it is impossible to determine how much of our success is attributed to our IQs, but statistically, the correlation is there. The same goes for gender and race. It is impossible for us to determine, how much of the success of, say, George Bush is attributable to him being a white male, but statistically the correlation is there. So, what is the difference? How do we know that in the case of innate talents like IQ, one’s success in life is not an exploitation of this innate talent, and in the case of social privileges or physical advantages, it is?

IQ can be used to do something evil, but it can also be used to do something good. Inherited wealth can be used to do something productive for our society (like building a museum), and it can also be used to do something destructive for our society. Even the talent for music is the same. Some highly talented people are full of themselves, and they can make others feel quite badly. Many musicians, filmmakers, artists, and writers, for instance, contributed their talents to the Nazi causes. Their inherited talents are no different from inherited wealth that some people have. Any talent can be used for good or evil, artistic or otherwise.

If we want to make this world fair by evenly distributing inherited privileges, we would have to even out these innate talents as well. This could mean that someone who is talented in math should dedicate his life to teaching untalented people, instead of taking his talent to its highest potential, and contributing something to the history of mathematics. The talent for math, music, or art is something you are born with. You did not earn it. Naturally you still have to work hard to achieve something significant, but that is the same as inherited wealth. To accomplish something significant with your inherited wealth (not just giving it away to the poor), you must work hard at it too. There are certain things that only rich people can achieve, just as there are certain things that only a math genius can achieve. The world of fine arts, for instance, relies on the patronage of super wealthy. If you look at the art scenes of various countries, you will see that the richer the country is, the more vibrant the art scene is.

If we study how Mother Nature operates, it is clear that she is trying to create as much diversity as possible. In trying to make our inherited traits equal, we would be working against Mother Nature. Diversity is critical for our species to survive. Making everyone uniform and even would have disastrous consequences for our human race. Diversity allows us to adapt to various changes in the environment. A few thousand years ago, physical strength was a source of social power, but it is no longer. A talent for computer would give you more social power than physical strength would in today’s world. The times change, and different characteristics are seen as a source of power. Every person with his or her differences, in this sense, has a latent potential for benefiting or even saving our species. This includes characteristics that seem negative at first; for instance, blind people. Suppose, for whatever reason, we lose light completely forever, or we all go blind. If we did not have any blind people, the world may fall into chaos, and we may not survive as a species. With the culture, the skills, and the know-how the blind people have developed, we will be able to take their lead, and learn from them how to cope with the situation.

I believe, therefore, that advancing my own inherited privileges (or inherited differences) to their highest potential, is in fact my duty in life. Since there are so many people on this earth, it is more productive to contribute what you are good at, and not worry too much about other things. There will certainly be others (who are more talented than you are at those things) who would take care of them, which include people who are actually very talented at helping others. This does not mean that you should not help other people, or that you should not share your wealth. It just means that helping others directly is not a requirement for living a good, decent, or humane life. As a matter of fact, living your own life to its fullest potential would probably be more helpful (indirectly) to the human race. Just imagine what would have happened if all the talented artists, scientists, writers, engineers, philosophers, politicians, and doctors in history didn’t develop their talents, and simply taught the untalented people. Often unintended help (indirect help) is more helpful than intended help (direct help). And, help could also come in the form of inspiration, and you may not even know that you helped someone.

Hearing my argument above, my discussion partner, John, accused me of leading the way of Eugenics, but Eugenics is the exact opposite of what I am proposing. The believers of Eugenics think that they know what is good and bad for the human race; so they try to interfere with the natural course of evolution, and try to make everyone conform to their idea of good by selective breeding and genocide. In other words, they think they know better than nature. My view is the opposite. Nature is trying to foster diversity, and I believe we should respect that. That is, we should respect our differences without judging, and even come to appreciate what we commonly consider negative; not try to conform everyone to what we think is good.

In my view, it is presumptuous to assume that the unfairness that Mother Nature creates can be made fairer or just to any degree. We need to accept the fact that certain things in life are simply unfair and unjust. It is the idea of fairness that makes us arrogant. Entertaining of any idea of fairness is what enables us to compare ourselves with others and feel good about ourselves. If we did not formulate any concept of fairness with respect to our inherited traits (i.e., if we can accept unfairness in life as what it is), it would be impossible to compare ourselves to others, like comparing apples with oranges. There would be no basis or standard by which such a comparison could be made. It is like a marathon where each runner takes a completely different path. In life, all one needs to worry about is running one’s own path to the best of one’s abilities.

There is nothing wrong with helping the so-called “under-privileged” if you truly enjoy helping (in which case, you would not feel that you are helping, because you are getting your enjoyment out of it), but I would question myself if my motive were to achieve any kind of fairness. “Fairness” is a comparative concept, and as such it is necessarily motivated by your desire to compare. It is our desire to compare that is making us feel guilty. The problems associated with our inherited traits do not lie in their unfairness; they lie in our urge to compare ourselves with others. It is this vanity that is ultimately making us feel guilty. It is from this vanity that we need our “salvation”.